Request from an isolated feminist

Request from an isolated feminist:
I could use some words of wisdom. I just can’t face the task of revising an article on which I’ve got the most breathtakingly condescending comments. I can’t seem to keep going, but trust me when I say that my upcoming performance review will not be adequate if I don’t have a peer-reviewed journal article soon. I’m very close to being published with this one, and if I could just get this revision done, I’d be adequate! However, every time I open up the document, read the comments and try to respond to them or change my paper, I just feel sick. I want to crawl in bed, quit my job, admit defeat. The thing is, all the condescending comments are on the feminist material. Today I seriously considered just abdicating on the argument, just rewriting the whole paper to say the comments are right, and feminism is wrong but thanks so much for recommending that I read longstanding classics in the field. I was on the point of reversing my entire view in order to get published, but I cannot do it. What do feminist philosophers do who have been in this position? How do you carry on? How do you finish that work? Most importantly, how do you punch through the paralysis of just reading the comments over and over? I’m really stuck, and I feel like a failure.

Success stories welcome. I hope someday I have one to send along myself, after all this is over.

My own suggestion would be to write a cover letter very politely explaining why the comments on the feminism bit are wrong, but thanking the reviewer for showing you that there’s an important misunderstanding to be cleared up. Put in a footnote calling attention to the possible misunderstanding and showing why it’s a mistake, and note in your cover letter that you’ve done so– and that you think this improves the paper.

Then send it off, and pour yourself a stiff drink.

In other circumstances, you might just withdraw the paper and send it somewhere else– but it sounds like you’re too pressed for time. There’s also the option of writing the editor and explaining why you think the referee is incompetent. But I know people who have done this only to learn that the editor was the referee, and given that the editor’s almost certain to know the author’s identity it’s very high-risk.

Other thoughts?

12 thoughts on “Request from an isolated feminist

  1. While reviewers might not always come back with feminist-friendly responses (both in content and form), the fact that the reviewer asks for adjustment rather than rejection demonstrates a lesser degree of femi-hating. I’ve been told, and have found myself, that the best thing to do in these situations is to give the reviewer uptake by directly addressing the concern. This does not require changing the argument but rather having substantive engagement with a non-feminist (though not necessarily un-feminist) perspective. One might be able to assume that clarifying and expanding can satisfy an uninformed reviewer and this is helpful since it is the goal to have a broader, rather than narrower, audience. If the reviewer is anti-feminist, there wouldn’t be anything to be done anyway. And changing the whole angle of the argument would be self-defeating since they conditionally accepted the original argument, not its opposite.

  2. I’ve never encountered exactly this problem, but I have of course gotten comments on my work which seemed to come from a perspective which totally failed to understand what I was doing, or even seemed hostile or deeply mistaken. In my experience, even comments like that have proven somewhat helpful; usually the comments came up at points where I was insufficiently clear or detailed in my exposition. And, more importantly and positively, I have sometimes found that clarifying and expanding my exposition satisfied the commenter, even if my revisions didn’t really specifically address the comment (because the comment was so misinformed that there was no sensible way to address it directly). This might not work with a commenter as hostile as described here, but it’s possible that it’ll satisfy the editor even if it doesn’t satisfy the referee.

    I suppose this is similar to what Shay has said, and it’s probably easier to do emotionally if you don’t think the reviewer is actively malicious. But it’s worth a try; it may actually make the paper better.

  3. Can you talk over the strategy of replying with a friend? Doesn’t necessarily have to be a philosopher. Or, if you are really freezing up, think of bribing yourself. Even big time, if you can afford it.

    Sometimes I find a swift walk while composing can be good. Hard exercise can make some people feel better. Or write in a coffee shop with something good to eat.

  4. It’s hard not to take the reviewer’s comments personally, but keep telling yourself the reviewer doesn’t know who you are. I hope. Not all journals do anonymous peer review, but even if this one doesn’t, the reviewer obviously doesn’t really know who you are or she or he wouldn’t have condescended to you.

    The next thing to do is see if the reviewer offered any *arguments* for why the feminist material is wrong. If so, address them. If not, a footnote along the lines jender suggests would do nicely.

    The main thing, though, is not to give reviewers the power to make you feel bad. If they are disrespectful enough to condescend to you, to hell with ’em.

  5. I’m not sure if this is the norm, but where I receive reader comments with which I disagree and thus will address accordingly in a revision, I often send a memo-style document along with the revision explaining. When I once had condescending comments, I inserted the individual comments and then briefly explained my response below each. Doing this, I think, can help because when the condescending comment appears in isolation from the rest of the review, its condescension is cast into sharper relief. When followed in your memo by a calm, cool-headed explanation of why, say, you’ll insert a footnote merely nodding in the direction of the objection, it may help the editor see that the reader’s objection was really tonally off and/or too unhelpful to be fully incorporated into the essay.

    I do think notes can be a great aid in this sort of revision too. It sounds at least as if you’re being asked to address rather fundamental issues about a whole body of work, methodology, or more widely held positions. If, e.g., your essay can’t reasonably begin at square one and establish the warrant for including the feminist perspectives you do or establish the full warrant of those perspectives, you can include a note that acknowledges as much. I’m a big fan of notes that begin with “It is beyond the scope of this essay to establish X, Y, and Z. For detailed treatment of these issues, see A, B, and C.” In other words, part of what many of us must do is stipulate that we accept the credence of some body of arguments from which we plan to go on and make other arguments. I think it’s often fair and reasonable to establish (and announce!) the scope of what you can do. I also think it may be particularly helpful in these sorts of issues to note in your memo to the editor that addressing the objections in greater depth would significantly lengthen the essay (assuming that’s true), something there is usually an imperative to avoid.

    The only other thing I would add is that I hope you hang in there. Since you wanted success stories, here’s one. The essay for which I got by far the most condescending, deeply patronizing, and difficult to address “square one” style comments put me in a state of angry misery. Since I couldn’t figure out how to respond, I wrote an angry screed about how obnoxious and deeply wrong the reader’s comments were, dismantled them with the same sort of unrestrained contempt I’d seen in the comments, felt really good getting all that off my chest, deleted it, and then went on doing much of what I describe above with a much lighter heart and greater confidence. The work was not only accepted with relatively minor revisions, it was nominated for a prize, something that’s never happened with anything else I’ve written.

  6. It sounds to me like part of the problem is that the comments are so nasty and demoralizing than the writer is having trouble formulating responses in the first place: `[E]very time I open up the document, read the comments and try to respond to them or change my paper, I just feel sick. I want to crawl in bed, quit my job, admit defeat.’ Having the courage to attach a memo explaining one’s changes (and lack of changes) comes slightly later in the process.

    One thought: Have a friend (a fellow feminist philosopher, more specifically) review and summarize or rewrite the comments, without the nastiness and invective. A sexist tirade about the fact/value distinction, say, can probably be condensed into an abbreviated question: `Confusing fact/value here?’ The friend has the emotional distance to read the nasty comments without getting demoralized, and the writer should be able to respond to the non-demoralizing comments.

    Good luck!

  7. Yes, if I was in this position I think I would pull support (if possible). Like from a friend whom I trust and respect, to read the article and the comments; to compare notes (because while being nauseated about the comments I would also doubt myself and my reactions, and get nauseated over that… so the view of another person would help me tremendously whatever that view would be ); and to help me with answering. A bit like what is happening now actually, but less general.

  8. I don’t have any helpful inputs from an academic standpoint, but on a more general, personal note, I’d just like to mention that condescending people are stupid. I don’t mean that in a pejorative, but descriptive sense: condescension often comes from an incomplete understanding of the facts, or a failure of imagination and failure to consider that there is something the condescending commenter doesn’t understand. The paradigmatic case of mansplaining (a special case of condescension reserved to women) involves a man who simply failed to consider that he may be embarrassing himself by lecturing about a book to someone who had written that book – because he was not in possession of all the facts (the authors name and the identity of the woman he was addressing), and didn’t admit the possibility that his interlocutor may be more informed on the subject than himself.

    In that sense it might be helpful to re-examine the hurtful comments from the standpoint of their ignorance, and address them in a respectful but firm and very well-informed position that will expose their inadequacy.

  9. Maina, The anecdote is wonderful. I was reminded of a scene from another century. I found it yesterday while looking for a suitable picture for a book I’m finishing. I wonder if anyone would take it to be a comment on the philosophy profession.

    by Marie Bracquemond

    I have no idea of how to make this smaller!

  10. Hey y’all,

    this whole conversation just made my day! Not so much because I’ve had horrible publishing experiences (one would actually have to have publishing experiences in order to have horrible ones) but because of the tenure process at the little college where I work. The great majority of young women *across departments* have received review letters (whether positive or negative) at every step of the way that reveal misogynist bias and just general condescension.

    Of course, we complain to each other and reassure each other, but the comments here offer real, substantive ways of engaging the process in a collaborative and (dare I say it?) empowering way. I missed the first go-round of this post, but I’m so happy to catch the follow-up. Thanks, everyone!!!

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